World and Nation

Pressed, Sen. Reid Says Health Bill May Have Public Option

Under immense pressure from the liberal wing of his caucus, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has told colleagues that he may include a government-run health insurance plan in a health care bill he will soon take to the Senate floor, Democratic senators said Thursday.

Reid’s latest thinking seemed to reflect a calculated gamble that the 60 members of his caucus could be persuaded to vote for the public plan, if it included some mechanism for states to opt out.

His decision was shaped, in part, by opinion polls showing public support for a government insurance plan, which would compete with private insurers. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said again on Thursday that the House would definitely include a public option in its version of the legislation.

At a meeting at the White House on Thursday, Reid told President Barack Obama of his inclination to add the public option to the bill. Obama asked questions, but did not express a preference at the meeting, which was called on short notice by the White House.

Just six weeks ago the public option appeared to be dying, under fierce attack by the insurance industry. A clear majority of Democratic senators favor a government-run plan. But public statements by other senators indicate that the proposal does not have the 60 votes ordinarily needed to secure Senate approval for hotly contested legislation.

As word of Reid’s plans spread Thursday, senators from both parties said they had come together in an informal group to resist creation of a uniform nationwide public insurance program. Leaders of the group, including Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, said they wanted to be sure the bill was not rushed to the floor.

One of the centrists, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., said: “I am pressing to get a government-run, taxpayer-supported public option out of the bill. I want to rely on a reformed private marketplace.”

The public plan is the most divisive issue in the debate, even though the Congressional Budget Office says it would likely attract no more than 12 million people. Critics say the public plan would have unfair advantages and could eventually dominate the market, leaving hardly any role for private insurers.